Sunday, 13 January 2013

What is science education for?

What is it that we are delivering? And what do we need to change/move forward? What it is that we could do better if we could?

The questions above were posed by our new Head Teacher on Monday in her initial address to the staff. She wants each department to think about it carefully from an individual area's point of view.

This isn't something new to me.

I have mentioned the book "how science works" by James Williams before. The opening chapter is called "understanding the nature of science". After reading this I realised that this was my main purpose in teaching. While I am teaching students things like F=ma, electrons orbit the nucleus and chlorophyll is a green pigment that they need to pass exams, I need to remember that teaching them about the nature of science is important for the rest of their lives.

I believe there is a consensus that the young people should leave school scientifically literate. (ie able to make decisions that involve science). After the ASE conference lecture by Professor Paul Hardaker (a meteorologist) I realised that even reading the weather forecast requires a level of scientific literacy.

I am more of a "bringer together of ideas" than an imaginative person. I rely on experience over creativity. So in order to write the aims for my department I am not going to be original, but start with the "aims of a good science department" from the ASE Guide to Secondary Education (

They are:

1. A grasp of the "big" ideas that enable active participation in decisions involving science and technology
2. A basic understanding of what science is, how it works and what are its strengths and limitations
3. The ability to continue learning

If you want to know the rationale then you will have to buy the book!

In a previous blog post about a lecture given by Michael Reiss he talks about the purpose of education being the "flourishing of young people". I would hope that science education in my department will aim to do this in the context of our subject.
Professor Reiss also points out that there is an overlap between what students learn in the classroom and outside of it (e.g. From YouTube). It is increasingly important that we help the young people learn to interpret this information critically and correctly. So I believe that aim 3 is a very important point to consider in that context.

(I think about the lecture given by Paul Hardaker where he spent time talking about climate change and the lack of acceptance among the general public.)

Under aim 1 I would want to ensure that students get to experience science theories first hand in an controlled context in the lab, so they can see and believe certain scientific phenomena. I believe that students can't discover scientific ideas through play, but need scaffolding to reach accepted conclusions and understand the evidence behind them.

Of course what the "big ideas" are in aim 1 are up for debate.

I think aim 2 is overlooked by many science teachers, myself included in my early teaching career. See my comments above about the book "How Science Works". For those who are going on to further science studies and those who are not they have to understand that no idea in science cannot be challenged and refined. Science is not a group of indisputable facts, yet it is also not something that can be argued from all sides. It is difficult to give 13/14 year olds experience of this though.

It is easy to take someone else's opinions, particularly when they are written in a published book, and accept them as part of your policies. Easy to do when you are creating policies as a tick box exercise. However, I do believe these three aims and I am committed to achieving them for the students I teach. I won't be adopting them, writing them down and hoping it is what we do, I want to take the next step and embed them in our curriculum, teaching and attitude.

What is it that we are delivering? And what do we need to change/move forward? What it is that we could do better if we could?

On my journey to answer this I have my aims, now I need to look at what we are doing and in what way we meet them.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

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